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Looking into the lens of Al Jazeera

A new documentary about the Arabic outlet reveals coverage a world apart from US news

Al Jazeera, the seven-year-old Qatar-based satellite television channel -- seen by more than 40 million viewers and staffed by many former BBC Arabic Television veterans -- is a bold experiment in independent journalism in a region long dominated by state-subservient media. It's also the subject of a new documentary, "Control Room," directed by Jehane Noujaim, a Harvard graduate.

"I grew up in Cairo, where the news was completely run by the state," said Noujaim. But after returning home in the late 1990s, she recalled, "people were pooling together their money to buy a satellite dish to see debates on Al Jazeera. People were talking about issues they never talked about before."

For many Americans, however, Al Jazeera seems more like the ominous voice of the enemy than a breath of fresh air. The outlet, which burst upon this nation's consciousness by relaying the first images of the US attack on Afghanistan in October 2001, has become famous for airing those chilling, threatening Al Qaeda videos. It infuriated Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld by transmitting footage of dead and captured US prisoners in the early days of the war in Iraq. Its cameras have focused on the kind of collateral damage, civilian casualties, and anti-American sentiment that were only rarely beamed into US homes.

"Control Room" opens Friday and has a special premiere tomorrow night at the Harvard Film Archive with Noujaim in attendance. Her previous film was 2001's "Startup.com," a documentary that followed a dot-com started by two high school friends from its inception in 1999 through its collapse the following year. The film was nominated for a grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival the year of its release and won numerous prizes at other festivals.

Noujaim's latest film focuses on Al Jazeera's coverage of the US-led assault that drove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. And it doesn't try and soft-pedal the chasm between Al Jazeera and the United States -- or at least between it and US policy. The outlet's most likable character, a Sudanese journalist named Hassan Ibrahim, is nevertheless such a staunch opponent of the Iraq war that he acidly sums up the Bush administration policy as "democratize or I'll shoot you."

In the film, Al Jazeera staffers make it clear that they believe that the US fire that killed the channel's Baghdad correspondent represented a deliberate attack to silence them and posit the theory that the young men who helped pull down the Hussein statue in Baghdad were US-recruited ringers rather than citizens caught up in a moment of spontaneous celebration. Antiwar sentiment practically oozes from every pore of the news organization.

"Most of us resent American foreign policy throughout the Middle East; we cannot agree with it," Samir Khader, the cigarette-puffing Al Jazeera senior producer who is one of the major figures in "Control Room," declared during a Boston Globe interview.

Noujaim, who was also interviewed by the Globe, added that there are "very different perceptions of what's happening in the world. I knew this was a conflict where there were strong feelings on both sides. . . . There's a lot of lack of understanding on both sides."

In what may be the most effective scene in "Control Room," a number of Western journalists watching US forces triumphantly enter Baghdad seem fascinated and almost elated while their Al Jazeera counterparts wallow in shocked disbelief. "Where is the Republican Guard?" wonders one such stunned staffer.

But viewers who stop to ask themselves why the Western journalists' upbeat reaction is any more journalistically appropriate than the Arab journalists' dismay will absorb a key lesson of the documentary and have a better understanding of the driving force behind Al Jazeera. Or as Khader put it when asked about his channel's journalistic objectivity: "You have to define objectivity . . . in the eyes of our audience."

That audience is made up of millions of Arabs who, despite misgivings about Hussein, largely saw the US invasion of Iraq as no cause for celebration. Khader himself is a native Iraqi and in one scene in the film, a correspondent for Abu Dhabi Television talks about reporting on the conflict without bias. "I have to reflect what my people are feeling," he complains. "How can I smile when my people are being killed in Iraq?"

"Every story could be covered from a different angle," Khader told the Globe. "I followed many of the American news channels, and I think they did a good job while being too . . . patriotic."

One of Al Jazeera's unlikely -- and maybe unwitting -- allies in "Control Room" turns out to be a US press officer, Lieutenant Josh Rushing, who actually becomes a persuasive spokesman for walking a mile in the other guy's shoes. At one point in the film, he ruefully acknowledges feeling guilty that images of Iraqi casualties don't affect him as strongly as seeing dead US troops. "It makes me hate war," he says.

He makes an equally salient point in comparing Al Jazeera to the Fox News Channel, the ratings-leading, right-tilting cable network that displayed the Stars and Stripes in a corner of the screen during the war and talked of B-52 bombers making a "grand entrance" into battle.

"It benefits Al Jazeera to play to Arab nationalism because that's their audience, just like Fox plays to American patriotism for the exact same reason," muses Rushing.

While the analogy holds, it wasn't just Fox that wore its heart on its sleeve. American television commentators and anchors often referred to US troops as "us" and "we" during the war, and good news and bad news was measured in terms of American success on the battlefield. US viewers may have been comfortable with coverage filtered through a nationalistic prism, which makes it hard to fault Al Jazeera for providing the same thing for its audience.

In fact, there are some scenes in "Control Room" that provide real reassurance about Al Jazeera. After airing an interview with a US analyst who characterizes the war as an American grab for oil reserves, Khader, citing the need for journalistic balance, bawls out his producer for giving air time to "a crazy activist." And a number of the Al Jazeera staffers come off as decent, thoughtful people, the kind you'd like to have dinner with. In one surprising vignette, Khader even says he'd take a job at Fox in order to change "the Arab nightmare into the American dream" and vows to send his kids to study and live here. (In the Globe interview, he appeared to have reconsidered his desire to work at Fox, saying "I was under stress and pressure at that time.")

Despite the deep differences between Al Jazeera and US media, Noujaim said that in making the film, "I really wanted to find characters that were trying to bridge that gap." Ibrahim and Rushing gamely try to start some kind of conversation between people on different sides of the divide. But Noujaim's success in both demythologizing and defanging Al Jazeera in "Control Room" comes from simply showing that its Iraqi war coverage mirrored the core philosophy of the electronic media in this country -- stay in synch with your customers.

Mark Jurkowitz can be reached at jurkowitz@globe.com.

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